The Arts

SoNA (Symphony of Northwest Arkansas)

Masterworks III Concert Preview

SoNA, under the direction of Music Director, Paul Haas, continues the orchestra's 2014-2015 subscription concert season on Saturday, March 7, at 7:30 P.M. Called "Masterworks III: Surf and Turf," the program includes well-known works by composers Bedrich Smetana, Claude Debussy, and Ottorino Respighi, and will be given at the orchestra's home, the Walton Arts Center, in Fayetteville.

About that name: Surf and Turf. I, for one, think that a bit cutesy even for a chain-restaurant menu, more so for a concert program. Come to think of it, I am not wild about themed concert programs, unless the theme in question is fairly demanding recognition, like Christmas, for example. In this case, I would think (hope) that this theme was retro-fitted to the program. However, the offerings themselves are in fact programmatic. The pieces to be performed do speak of water and earth. Wasn't that a Xerxes line from the film, 300? What if Xerxes had leaned to Leonidas' ear and whispered, "What I offer you is surf and turf?" He would have probably accepted, being famished from battle and all, and the world would not be the same.

A Note on Program Music

So-called program music is supposed to evoke mental pictures - usually, moving pictures - of something specific, in the mind of the listener. It has been around for a long time. Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi's, Concerti, Opus 8, The Four Seasons, come immediately to mind. It is impossible not to see birds and other fauna flitting around while listening to the concerto, "Spring," for example.

Some, like the great composer, Robert Schumann, disliked the concept. He claimed to be an adherent to the school of thought that serious music should be pure music, not programmatically evocative of something in the physical world. I think that a little harsh, personally, especially coming from one that liked to use musical anagrams of his girlfriends' names for much of his inspiration! One might also recall that Schumann's own Symphony #1 is called "Spring." He explained this by writing that the title was, in fact, retro-fitted to the work after it's completion. That, apparently, made it okay.

I like program music. I dare say that most of us born during or after the Golden Age of Hollywood would be rather lost without it, not knowing what to think when looking at, say, the ocean, for example, on the silver screen without the benefit of the musical cues we have come to expect. We have come to expect them because film music composers borrowed heavily from those that preceded them, like Smetana, Debussy and Respighi, that had established the musical devices that we associate with scenes of  water - be it fluvial, oceanic or playing from fountains.

SoNA's Masterworks III is a solid program - of program music. It is a little atypical of orchestra concerts in that there is no virtuoso piece nor symphonic warhorse of the repertoire involved. With that said, I like it. These are three wonderful and well-known concert works that should get on quite well together.

The Program

Bedrich Smetana

Ma Vlast, #2: "The Moldau"

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)was a Neo-Romantic composer that is regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music. Ma Vlast (My Country) is a collection of six symphonic poems written between 1875 and 1880 that each depict different aspects of his native Bohemia.

These six pieces were conceived separately and even premiered independently of each other. "The Moldau" premiered on April 4, 1875. In it, Smetana uses tone painting to describe the Vltava, Die Moldau in German, as it courses through the Czech landscape. Here is how the composer described it:

     The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the VyŇ°ehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).

"The Moldau" is in the key of E minor and is about twelve minutes long. It contains what would be Smetana's most famous tune, the motif shown 


It had its roots in Renaissance Italy, but had found its way to Bohemia and appeared in an old Czech folk tune, "The Cat Crawls Through the Hole" - albeit in a major key, at that time.

Here is a 2014 performance of "The Moldau," by the Czech Philharmonic, Jiri Belohlavec, conducting.

Claude Debussy

La mer (The Sea)

Three Symphonic Sketches For Orchestra

I. From Dawn to Midday On the Sea

II. Play of the Waves

III. Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea

French composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), was one of the greatest of the Impressionist composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His use of devices such as atonality and chromaticism would have large impact on those that followed. His influence is very evident in later film music, as referenced earlier, where his style and use of such non-traditional devices are easily perceived.

La mer was composed between 1903 and 1905 and received its premiere on October 15, 1905 in Paris, by Orchestre Lamoureux, under the direction of Camille Chevillard. It was not initially well-received, due in part to insufficient rehearsal. Since, it has become one of the mainstays of the symphonic repertoire and is one of the composer's most-admired works.

Debussy called the work "three symphonic sketches," mostly to avoid the term "symphony," with all of its traditional baggage. However, it is in a form that fits a traditional symphony, with strong first and third movements surrounding what amounts to a scherzo in between.

Almost every movie you have ever seen that involves the sea has a musical score that very directly hearkens back to this piece. As you listen to it, there will be no question in your mind what images Debussy was masterfully and successfully trying to impart.

Listen here to La mer, recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Ottorino Respighi

Pines of Rome

I. Pines of the Villa Borghese

II. Pines Near a Catacomb

III. Pines of the Janiculum

IV. Pines of the Appian Way

Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), was highly-regarded not only as a composer, but also as a musicologist and conductor. He was born in Bologna in 1879. He is most well-known for his orchestral music, particularly his trilogy of symphonic poems depicting different features of Rome: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals.  The second work of the trilogy, Pines of Rome, was written in 1924 and premiered on December 14, 1924 in Rome, with Bernardino Molinari, conducting.

The work is in four movements with each depicting the pine trees in different parts of Rome. The first movement depicts children playing in the pines of the Villa Borghese Gardens. The second, is a dirge meant to portray a lonely chapel amidst the pines above the catacombs of Campagna. The temple of Janus, Roman god of doors and gates he third movement, sits on a hill amongst the pines, in a nocturne that serves as the third movement. Finally, ancient Rome is given the musical nod in the final movement, which depicts the trudging progress of a legion along the Appian Way as it enters Rome, finally triumphantly cresting the Capitoline Hill.

Here is a 1983recording of Pines of Rome, performed by Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal. Charles Dutoit is conducting.

For ticket information visit www.sonamusic.org/tickets/

 by James Kevin Connell


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